Artist Ruby Jackson’s latest efforts include miniature vistas of food and table settings, from desserts and a ham to chairs made from champagne corks.
Jackson, 66, creates the miniature tableaux from colorful polymer clay in her Sag Harbor studio. She’s a year and a half into retirement from a post as assistant to the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton, and said she loves having more time to spend on her own art, which also includes sculpture and painting.
“I waited my whole life for it,” she said.
Jackson has lived on the East End since 1977, first in East Hampton and then in Sag Harbor in 1988, after a yearlong stint in Florida when she attended Ringling College of Art and Design. She received a degree in art education from Long Island University. She started her art career when she moved from Queens to Manhattan at age 19, gaining exposure when her white plaster sculptures were featured in window displays at Tiffany & Co. in 1975. Since then, she has worked as a teacher, gotten married, been treated for breast cancer, discovered snorkeling and taken up the trapeze.
Jackson started working with clay in the 1980s, creating small rooms filled with a series of beds dubbed “Love Nests.” It was her first foray into miniatures.
“I came back to it with this miniature food project,” she said. “You answer when it calls to you.”
Jackson’s early influences included artsy relatives. Her uncle was a sign painter and let her sit at his easel and use his paints, pencils and paintbrushes. Her paternal grandmother made miniature clothes for Jenny Lind dolls. Jackson said she felt as if she were channeling the two of them when she embarked on her miniature foods quest.
“I was noodling around with the polymer clay and began making paint trays, then paintbrushes, and then it morphed into little clay pieces for foods,” she recalled. “Then I began making a setting for the items — plates for the food, a table to sit it on.”
She uses polymer clay that is already colored and mixes different hues together to attain the colors she wants. Once she’s made the sculptures she fires the synthetic modeling compound in a toaster oven, and the molds turn to hard, sturdy plastic, she said.
Her work is displayed in the permanent collection of Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton, Stony Brook University Hospital and in several private collections. She recently completed a children’s book about the artist Lee Krasner, wife of abstract painter Jackson Pollock, to be published in a couple of months.
Jackson said she loves to teach and has taught kindergarten students to make items using a clay that she says is softer than Play-Doh. She will teach two polymer clay classes at the South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center in Bridgehampton in the coming months: an adult class on April 30 and a June 11 class for children.
Your miniatures were shown at two galleries in the Hamptons last summer. What was the reception like?
People love the food. They were in there looking and comparing; everybody responds to the food. It’s unbelievable. They have to identify things and recognize things. They really, truly did enter that world.
What was the inspiration behind your plaster works that were featured in the display windows at Tiffany & Co.? (Jackson had four Tiffany window displays: plaster in 1975 and 1984, and fired ceramic clay designs in 1992 and 1994.)
The “White Castles” and “White Towers” [plaster] displays took their inspiration from the buildings and architecture of New York City. A friend urged me to show a sample carving to Gene Moore, who dressed the windows at Tiffany and was known for taking a chance on young artists. Moore liked its 3-D look and ordered four more, one for each of Tiffany’s five windows. I had less than a year to do it. I made up my own techniques for working on them since you can’t carve into a solid block of plaster.
Do you find small-scale artwork more difficult to create than the larger pieces?
Small scale speaks to me better. I’ve done a few large pieces but I find myself in strange territory. I’m not great with things bigger than me.
Which of your miniature creations looks the tastiest to you?
I love the cakes. They look really good. I notice people are attracted to the dishes they love in real life.
What other artists have inspired you or influenced your work?
Big influences as a child were [surrealists] René Magritte and Joan Miró. I saw their works in Look and Life magazines when I was little and I thought they were girls. If they can do that, I thought, so can I. And New York artist Joseph Cornell: He created a beautiful intimacy with his boxes. And Picasso. I was mad at Picasso for how mean he was to his children and wives, but I’ve had to put aside my anger at him. He was an endless font of creativity.
If you could work in another medium, what would it be?
If I could go back to one medium, it would be wood carving. It’s so deeply satisfying. But I’m not on that path now. But if I did, it would be a found piece of wood that I would carve into a walking stick.
What was it like doing several original illustrations for The New York Times best-seller “The Sorcerer’s Companion: A Guide to the Magic of Harry Potter”? (The encyclopedia-like book was written by her husband, author and magician Allan Zola Kronzek, and his daughter, writer and historian Elizabeth Kronzek.)
In her writing, J.K. Rowling drew on information about the mythology and the lore behind the lore, its ancient roots, and that’s what I helped illustrate. What are the primary challenges women artists face, and what can they or their supporters do to raise their profiles?
Women face challenges in every area, no matter where we go. If we go into fields like veterinary work, the wages go down. We are underrepresented. Women artists. Men artists. Blond artists. Why are we corralled into a pen?
Women need to work on being out there and just getting in people’s faces. Picasso wasn’t doing anything but his art. He was not being asked to cook, clean, or put a meal on the table. Women have to be more single-mindedly selfish and more driven to success. We don’t get a fair shake. Women have to demand it, otherwise they’re not going to get it.
How do you want to be viewed as an artist?
I want to be viewed as a serious artist, one not knocked off my path easily. And I want to remain fresh as an artist, and honest. I want my work to feed me, like I’m on a journey of exploration. I want to be seen as a serious working artist who is a vehicle for something to come through the work that is bigger than I am, and smarter than I am.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m doing projects with small paper things, creating the colors by coloring on paper, folding it and then creating the composition. And I’m using polymer clay for teaching. I’m practicing making little animals for a course I’m teaching for adults and kids, how to make it in digestible bits.
As an artist, what’s the best part about having Long Island as a backdrop?
The light on the East End. I can burst out in tears for the beauty of the light just shimmering in the air on a glorious day. It’s like an epiphany. And I love the growth; it feeds me as a human being and as an artist.